The domination of Britain’s Big Five commercial broadcasters (Thames, LWT, Granada, Central and Yorkshire) in the ITV landscape could be undermined following a proposal to create an independent scheduler with sole responsibility for network programming.

The new scheduling supremo, expected to be in the newly created job early next year, will commission about 2,700 hours of networked shows a year worth about £500 million (about $1 billion).

Currently, the Big Five producers have a corner on most of the primetime slots for themselves, while small and medium sized stations (like HTV, Anglia or Tyne Tees) have to scramble for remaining crumbs of airtime.

The proposal is contained in a document published Feb. 15 by the regulating Independent Television Commission, which invites bids for new 10-year ITV franchises, slated to begin in 1993. Applications have to be submitted by May 15 and a decision will be published by the end of October, per the ITC. Franchises will be awarded via competitive tender to the highest sealed bid, but a lower bid can be accepted in “exceptional circumstances.”

Creation of an independent central scheduling office should, in theory, benefit indie producers and medium to small ITV broadcasters who now will be able to pitch their shows on equal footing with the Big Five.

“It’s a real watershed for the commercial ITV network,” commented Fred Hasson of the Independent Program Producers Assn., which has lobbied the Office of Fair Trading for a change to the networking rules.

Could it benefit the bigs?

Clive Leach, head of Yorkshire TV, said the new proposals could, in fact, work to the benefit of the Big Five. “In my view we have more problems with the present system in not being able to get all our good projects onto the screen because of production ‘quotas’ for each company,” he said. “The new system could benefit the big producers, as happened in the U.S.”

The ITC envisages creating a clear separation between the scheduler (who will have so-called “executive” powers for commissioning and deciding the schedule) and a policy-making body of the 16 ITV companies. It suggests setting up a separate company wholly owned by the ITV companies with “appropriately skilled and qualified staff employed specifically for the purpose” of creating a competitive schedule.

Leach said the the new post of central scheduler would carry immense influence and power. “But what a rotten job. He only needs one flop and the ITV companies would tear him apart.”

Indie producers, who in 1993 will be entitled to access to 25% of airtime, will be able to pitch their proposals directly to the central scheduler as well as to regional broadcasters.

Agreement on networking leaves just one key issue in the franchise process still to be determined. This relates to the size of stakes indie producers will be allowed to take in new ITV franchises. According to sources at the Home Office, the limit is likely to be set at 15%.

Tom Gutteridge, whose Mentorn Film is part of a three-pronged ITV bid with record label Polygram and the Palace Group, said he could live with the 15% figure if the rumors proved correct. Indie producers had asked the Home Office for a 20% ceiling in line with cross media ownership laws.

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